My mother, Inga, was 24 and living in Berlin when she won a Fulbright Fellowship and a Ford Foundation grant to study political science in America. She caught the boat from Bremerhaven, about four hours by train from where she grew up in Schleswig-Holstein, and, after a week at sea, docked in Manhattan and made her way somewhat implausibly to Ithaca, New York. There she met my father, an undergraduate at Cornell. They were both taking a class on constitutional law. The story goes that one day Inga asked the room, “Does anyone mind if I open a window?” As a good north German, she likes to feel the fresh air. In Ithaca in winter the temperature hovers around nothing degrees. My father has minded for the past 55 years.
At the end of King Lear, Edgar addresses the court: “The oldest hath borne most,” he says. “We that are young/Shall never see so much, nor live so long.” In most ways, my parents have lived quiet and conventional academic lives, but those lines make me think of them. My mother was 7 when the war ended. The bedtime stories she told us of her childhood were war stories. My father, five years younger, had a classic American small-town youth—he grew up in Middletown, New York, played sandlot baseball and rooted for the Dodgers before they shifted to L.A. But when he married my mother they both cut themselves off from their old lives and families. She, because she settled in America, over 5,000 miles from home, at a time when the journey was mostly made by sea. And he, because he married not just a Christian, but a German Christian, two decades after the war.
Inga, when I asked her for some background facts to write this piece, says that religion was never an issue for them. Once at a restaurant she ordered a dish with bacon in it and offered him a bite. He said, no thanks, I don’t eat bacon, but didn’t mention why. Of course she knew why but for some reason it didn’t come up. Religion mattered to his parents, though, who met her for the first time at his graduation. When they got married, four years later, no family from either side came to the wedding. The deal that they struck with each other was that their kids would be raised Jewish, and that they would grow up speaking German.
They had five of them—kids, I mean. Enough for a basketball team. Enough, also, that we didn’t need any outside family to persuade us of who we were. We had a kind of island childhood, separated from the mainland on both sides … and the island we grew up on was where the academic currents of our parents’ lives had allowed them to drift ashore: Austin, Texas.
These days, my mother likes to say that the group of people she feels most comfortable around are American Jews. Mutti, my German grandmother, once told her, sadly, “I wish I could say Jew the way you do.” Without feeling shame, or worrying that what came across when she used the word was the opposite of shame.
The rabbi came to dinner after I was born, to convert me officially. At least, that’s what my father says. It didn’t seem to matter. By Austin standards, I was plenty Jewish enough for my reform synagogue, where I learned the usual pidgin Hebrew for eight years of Sunday school (“Aba ba, Ima ba’a”). At my bar mitzvah, or maybe it was my brother’s, we noticed at one point that the rabbi’s wife had disappeared and eventually discovered her sitting in the car and listening to the Texas-Oklahoma football game on the radio. That’s the kind of town it was. I didn’t know any Jewish kids at school. What Jewishness offered us was not a community but a sense that we had a life, or at least a history, elsewhere.
But I had other reminders. German may or may not have been my first language—by the time I arrived on the scene, my brother had already started school. English, like the serpent, had entered the garden. But we spoke German at home, and whenever we had guests, my brother and sisters reverted to it as a form of secret communication. Darf ich noch ein Stück Kuchen haben? And still at certain moments we slip into it with each other, to claim a kind of childish intimacy. My German is rusty now and full of mistakes, but it feels like part of the hardware not software—it’s a language that doesn’t need translation.
In other words, for us, Germanness and Jewishness turned out to be the same kind of thing … A source of difference, connected to our parents and their childhoods, which we took pride in. There was no split between them, no divide. At Christmas we bought a tree, and decorated it with real beeswax candles, and exchanged presents on Christmas Eve, as Germans do … We sang Schneeflöckchen, Weissröckchen and Maria durch ein’ Dornwald ging, with the lights off and the candles lit in front of the living room fire. But we sang Mi Yimaleil, too, and Ma’oz Tzur, and played dreidel as well as Müß, and received Hanukkah presents, squeezed into our shoes, which we set out in the entrance hall every night, according to some fusion of Hanukkah and Nikolaustag that I still can’t make sense of.
It’s strange how often the traditions overlapped. In Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, when Augie’s “Mama” touches him on the arm and says, “Gedenk, Augie, wenn ich bin todt!”, it’s because of my German mother and not my Jewish father that the words strike home. And what we spoke in the family was a kind of Yiddish, too—a mishmash. Pass the Apfelmus. Parents sell their own childhoods to their kids, the good in them, so that you learn from these stories what counts as funny and true … and both my mother and father sold us in their ways pictures of happy childhoods. Even if the countries and cultures that produced them at the time were in the middle of a terrible war, and their own parents distrusted each other and almost never interacted.
For some reason, I associated the German side of my family with the part of me that wanted to become a writer. Every summer we flew to Flensburg, just on the Danish border, where my mom grew up. Her grandparents’ house was still in the family, a trim postwar cottage built on a large plot of land that stretched down, amid woods and apple trees, to the water: the Flensburger fjord. My mother’s family had lived in the area for over a century. Our street, a dirt road shaded by tall planes (you could see the sea between them), had been named by my great-grandmother. She called it Die Schoene Aussicht, or pretty view, and for a long time relatives of mine owned most of the land on either side. There were fields when I was a kid, but it’s all been developed now, and Die Schoene Aussicht has become the Rodeo Drive of a provincial north German town—the best address in the city. My grandparents’ cottage is a modest anomaly.
Schulthes is my mother’s maiden name. It means high-ranking official. My great-grandfather served as finance minister for the city of Berlin. As kids, when we answered the phone in Flensburg, we said, “Bei Schulthes”—because the name meant something in the neighborhood. A bust of some relative, I don’t know who, stands on the antique bookcase in the living room, which also contains a 12-volume edition of the complete works of Friedrich Schiller. (I never could get past the Gothic script.) My grandmother acquired it during the war, in exchange for a tin of pork and apple sauce. These were the sacrifices Schultheses made to culture. But they also seemed connected to other kinds of tradition. A great aunt taught us mahjong. My grandfather kept a boat in the harbor—there was an expectation that we’d become competent sailors. One summer, an uncle caught mussels from the fjord in illegal nets and afterward his wife boiled them in a big pot outside on the terrace, but I was too scared, and squeamish-American, to try one.
Somehow upstate New York never seemed as interesting. Partly because of the break with his parents, after the marriage, I saw much less of my father’s side of the family. And besides, their roots were elsewhere. They had named no streets. My dad’s dad was born in Hungary and moved to the Lower East Side in 1907, when he was 2 months old. The family business was groceries. We visited Middletown only once during my childhood, sleeping at my uncle’s house, and I got to stay up late to watch Monday Night Football because the Cowboys were playing. Tony Dorsett scored on a 99-yard run. There was a pinball machine in the basement den. These are the kind of things I remember.
It wasn’t till much later that I realized what a dumb kid I was. I hadn’t been paying attention. When, in my 20s, I started reading novels for myself, including writers like Roth and Bellow, I saw how close to my father’s experience their subject matter was. Especially Roth’s, whose memories of Weequahic High sounded a lot like the stories of the kids my dad liked to talk about. It occurred to me for the first time, cultural inheritance also looks like this—it’s not just busts of relatives and boats in the harbor. My dad when we were children liked to keep what he called “a shit list,” a semi-joking, semi-not way of referring to all the people that day who had pissed him off, of whom I was likely to be one. These details are as useful to a novelist as mahjong. They’re even as useful as my mother’s war stories. And not just because of their verbal invention, but because of the long history of self-mocking frustration they suggest, which is still real frustration, with a world that hasn’t always adapted to fit us.
When I was 13, my father’s mother, Granma Dot (short for Dorothy), came to live with us—more or less until she died, which is more or less after I went to college. The reason she moved in is that she had no choice. Her husband had died years before, and she was functionally blind after a botched cataract operation. She was losing her words, too, as she put it, after a series of strokes, and either chronically constipated or incontinent. As a kid all I knew was that she drank a lot of Metamucil and went to the bathroom every five minutes. I didn’t like to touch her hands; they always seemed wet.
By this point, my mother’s relations with her were friendly but unintimate. Granma Dot had a lot of manner, she sometimes sounded a little like Nancy Reagan. Very polite, very presented, even though she was living in a kind of fog. She couldn’t see other people, she couldn’t really see how they saw her. But my dad still had to fight all the old fights with her, they couldn’t help themselves. You don’t outgrow this relationship, even if your mother is 80 years old, stuck in Texas with her Christian daughter-in-law and her half-Jewish grandkids, looked after by the German au pair, in a climate where she has to wear heavyweight sunglasses to protect her barely functioning eyes. Even if the fight you’ve been fighting with her for most of your life, over my mother, is over. Granma had lost.
Yet my relationship with her had a real intensity. And if I’m a writer these days, much of whatever self-control it requires I inherited from her. She used to teach high school French before she got married (her bachelor’s was in French literature), and also played piano at the local cinema in the silent-movie days of live soundtracks. These are the stories she told me, including the story of how her husband died. “They said in the hospital, you can go home, and I thought—what home?” She wasn’t always lucid, she couldn’t always string her thoughts together, so phrases like this that came through clearly had a kind of shine on them, like coins you keep in your pocket and continually rub. Because she couldn’t see, I used to read to her—anything I wanted, which meant in those days (my plan was to be a poet) pages from the Oxford Book of English Verse. We sat on the patio outside my bedroom door, in the shade of the crepe myrtle, on mild spring afternoons after school. I could never tell if her eyes were open, her sunglasses were like a mask, but once after The Wasteland she commented, “He likes his words too much.”
We even brought her with us to Germany on one of my mother’s sabbaticals. That’s how badly Granma lost the argument. We had a small house in the Berlin suburbs and for one year of high school I was almost as friendless as she. I hung around the living room, listening with her to the books on tape my dad took out of the English-language section at the university library. (Which included, incomprehensibly, Finnegan’s Wake.) She couldn’t see, she could talk straight, she had to go to the bathroom all the time, she was living in the land of the Holocaust with the daughter-in-law she did everything she could to prevent her son from marrying, and yet I used to watch her do her exercises several times a day—marching up and down the living room with a self-mocking good humor I recognized in my father, carrying in her hands two pink 3-pound jogging weights. The point of the self-mockery was not to make fun of her real intentions but to disguise them. Even at that age, at that stage, she had her vanity, and the self-discipline to see it through. If I sit down to my desk every morning, to do this repetitive work, it comes from her.
Read an excerpt from Benjamin Markovits’ A Weekend in New York here.